PIANIST OLGA KERN: Oct. 13 and 16, Lensic Performing Arts Center
Pianist Olga Kern
Olga Kern’s career started rolling when she became the co-gold medalist at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2001. It was a hotly debated decision — not because of her pianism per se, but because it was the first time that competition’s jury named two gold medalists instead of one. She accordingly shared the honor with Stanislav Ioudenitch, and both benefited from the same blip such a competition might provide, which is smaller than the Cliburn would have you imagine. To the pianists themselves fell the ongoing responsibility for developing their careers, and there is no question which has triumphed more. Ioudenitch teaches at a conservatory near Kansas City and seems to perform mostly as a member of a trio. Kern, on the other hand, has shown dogged determination to establish herself as a solo artist. She has not broken through to the international A-list of pianists who regularly appear with the world’s top orchestras, but she makes clear that she is hungry to do so; and until she does, she keeps busy making the rounds of respectable regional orchestras.
During her most recent visit to town, sponsored by the Santa Fe Symphony, she played a solo recital on Oct. 13 and appeared with the orchestra in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 on Oct. 16, in both cases at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. In each concert she displayed formidable technique, impressive drive, consistent character, and a winning stage personality. She left no doubt that Russian music is her strong suit, and she put it across with muscularity that could verge on the volcanic. There is something inspiring about the sheer tenacity of her playing. She reminded me of an Olympic racer dashing down the track, not particularly elegant but intent on giving her all, come what may. Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto is a war horse, and she played it like one, charging fearlessly through the field of battle, breaking into remarkable sprints during her cadenzas, displaying the stamina required to dominate every note of this demanding work right through the huge sonority of the final pages.
These are the skills that win competitions, and they are part of what goes into great Rachmaninoff playing. What we didn’t hear in this interpretation was tenderness, and I am not sure there is much point to the Third Concerto without it. One missed it the most in the Intermezzo movement, where one would have been grateful if the skittish waltzing toward the movement’s end had achieved something approaching sprightly or feathery.
Kern showed greater breadth in her playing of eight Rachmaninoff preludes that launched the second half of her solo recital. A floating tone inhabited the right-hand melody in the G-major Prelude (Op. 32, No. 5), its timbre happily differentiated from that of the left-hand accompaniment; it brought to mind the idea of “Russian Debussy.” Elsewhere in the set, one was more struck by the strength of her forearms and, especially in the famous G-minor Prelude (Op. 23, No. 5), her mastery of octave playing and note repetitions, which she pulled off imposingly and even finessed with musical shading. That augured well for Balakirev’s Islamey, which concluded the recital. But in between, she expanded the mood through a pair of etudes by Scriabin (Op. 42, Nos. 4 and 5). Both were admirably played, the first eliciting her most poetic playing of the week, the second simmering with neurotic fever. Islamey is notorious for its difficulty, but it is precisely the sort of piece that draws on Kern’s strengths. She plunged into it at about as fast a pace as I can remember hearing; and if she did sometimes bend the tempo as the piece progressed, it was not due to the octaves and repetitions. It is also a fingertwister, and she did seem to negotiate all the notes up to the final flourish. Her two encores were both effective: Prokofiev’s C-minor Etude (Op. 2, No. 4), in a diabolical reading, and Rachmaninoff’s Moment
musical in E minor (Op. 16, No. 4; she also played it as lagniappe after her concerto performance).
The first half of Kern’s recital was less gratifying. Three Scarlatti sonatas were victims of some pianistic bullying, with the C-major Sonata (K.159) being approached as if it were Stravinsky’s Petrushka. Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata got a propulsive performance, but the work’s niceties would have been more audible if balances had been less weighted to the left hand and textures had been generally lightened.
Back to the orchestra concert. The guest conductor was Ignat Solzhenitsyn, who led the ensemble in some of its best work in recent memory. Rimsky-Korsakov’s
Russian Easter Overture had a dark, burnished hue — Musorgskian, really — and was kept tightly in check until pent-up energy was released at its vigorous close. Especially fine solo contributions came from violinist David Felberg, cellist Joel Becktell, and trombonist Amanda Hudson, who allowed a touch of a jazzy inflection in some of her phrases (wasn’t expecting that!). The orchestra’s ambitious principal piece was Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5, which Solzhenitsyn led with sure-footed pacing. The strings effectively rendered the “icy” flavor of the somber first movement — meteorological descriptions are de rigueur in Sibelius — and the finale had a real dramatic sweep and, in places, a sense of the visionary. — James M. Keller